For we all, like sheep

Here the UK we have an “e-petition” website, where you can get get a bunch of like-minded people to sign up to your latest crazy idea and if you can find another 99,999 crazies then the Government has said it might consider debating your proposal. There was a lot of fuss yesterday, on twitter and in the news, about a petition to bring back capital punishment. Less fuss was made of the fact that there were twice as many petitioners for the contra motion.

A meme I saw repeated on twitter was that those who were campaigning for the return of the death penalty were those who also oppose abortion, as if this was both illogical and morally repugnant. (There is in fact an argument to be made that the innocent should be given a chance, while those who are clearly guilty have blown it—but that’s besides the point here.)

It’s equally logical to assert that those who are against capital punishment are also those who are in favour of killing unborn children—phrased like that, equally illogical and morally suspect.

The problem here is that, especially on twitter and in blogs and other forms of social media, subtleties and caveats and nuance are lost as we seek to beat the other side into submission—or at least to make them look foolish. There are, I think, few questions that resolve neatly into yes/no camps; and saying ‘yes’ to one never necessarily means an automatic ‘no’ to another. Look: the question “Have you stopped beating your wife yet? Answer yes or no” does not admit to an answer from a reasonable person. Equally, “Are you against abortion/Do you support the death penalty” in all cases is not a simple yes or no matter.

We could actually get somewhere if we stopped painting ‘the opposition’ in such simple terms. It would be even better if we realized how much our perceptions of someone who disagrees with us on one matter are shaped by either a few media-hogging loons, or the media itself, or both. But it’s far easier, far more satisfying, and far more effective in bolstering your own particular prejudices and gaining support, to demonize those you love to hate, and ascribe to them logically improbable positions to shore up your own prejudices and stop you engaging with the issue to hand. You’re white; I’m black: we must fight until one of us is dead.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
This entry was posted in Rants, wibbling, you and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to For we all, like sheep

  1. Excellent post.

    Although, to be fair, I have to say that many truly decent Twitter debates I’ve been involved with end with – “let’s postpone this until we’re sitting across the table with a pint, because the 140-char limit isn’t cutting it”. (Then there is the inevitable patronizing comment from the anonymous blogger I’m too polite to name who specializes in spreading vitriol behind his/her cowardly shield of anonymity – but that’s the exception rather than the rule, at least in my timeline.)

    I think Twitter can be useful for getting ideas out there, but it’s not so good at resolving them.

  2. rpg says:

    Yes. You’re right–twitter is completely awesome, actually. It’s not so much twitter per se, although it does lend itself to soundbites: it’s that it’s particularly suited to a particular mindset, I think.

  3. thanks for your post….
    This kind of reminds me a poll questions. you know how when you see polls that say 70% of (inserf your favourite demographic population you love to be shocked by) support abortion. Polls can be misleading – it depends on the question, for instance if you ask a question like ‘Do you support the invasion of Iraq as a prevention to war in your hometown?’ well?
    life is indeed complex ….

  4. rpg says:

    Nail, head.

    The capital punishment example I’m actually thinking of right now is Usama bin Laden. And no, I’m not entirely sure what I think about that, even now.

  5. ricardipus says:

    I’ll avoid comment on bin Laden myself. But your post is very nice – concise, reasoned, dare I say topical?

    The problem with most polls, I think, is that they aren’t designed by professionals. Anyone who’s taken even a first-year psychology course (and I will cheerfully admit that I haven’t) knows that designing questionnaires of any sort is both art and science, and requires in the best case a whole lot of built-in “control” and (for want of better terms) mis-direction/obfuscation questions.

    I’m reminding myself of the whole Myers-Briggs discussion we and others had several years ago now.

  6. rpg says:

    Oh, Richard. You can’t do that. “I’ll avoid comment”–have you learned nothing from social media? You need to have an opinion, and you need to defend it to the last breath.

    Yeah. And yes.

  7. cromercrox says:

    Social media are great – everyone can express their opinion at the click of a mouse. The problem is that the opinions of most people are worthless, because they are ill-informed.

    But now the genie is out of the bottle, everyone assumes that because they can express an opinion, it is therefore their right to do so (and dare I say their human right) rather than a privilege gained after much study and effort. The consequence is that everyone assumes that everyone’s opinion is of equal worth – cue the undue weight given to the opinions on any subject by actors and TV ‘personalities’; the frequent vox-pops used to pad out reports by lazy journalists in which the opinions of families of people involved in some mishap are assumed to be of equal worth as those of professional medics, scientists, lawyers and so on; the phenomenon in which one can get away with saying that because a zillion people signed my petition, it must carry any weight.

  8. cromercrox says:

    I forgot to add two things:

    1. A quip by one literary agent to the effect that if it’s true that everyone has a book in them, it would be best for all if that book never came out;

    2. An epigram as follows

    Swans sing before they die: ’twere no bad thing
    Should certain persons die before they sing

  9. rpg says:

    It’s not their right Henry; it’s their duty.

    Also, #include packmentality.h

  10. Anyone who calls a poll a poll and not an “instrument” is probably not qualified to design poll questions.

Comments are closed.